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Obama heads to Moscow for ‘reset’ summit

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Russian Matryoshka dolls decorated with images of U.S. President Barack Obama (R), his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev (C) and Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are seen on display at a market in Moscow July 3, 2009.

Obama heads to Moscow for ‘reset’ summit

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama left for Moscow on Sunday promising a far-reaching effort to “reset” U.S.-Russian relations that hit a post-Cold War low under the Bush administration.

Obama is looking for progress on the outlines of a new nuclear arms pact and improved cooperation in the Afghan war effort, but deep divisions remain over U.S. missile defense, NATO expansion and the 2008 Russia-Georgia war.

Traveling to Moscow for the first time since taking office, he hopes to keep building pragmatic ties with President Dmitry Medvedev but is likely to have a more strained introduction to Vladimir Putin, who still dominates Russian politics.

Obama set the stage with a pre-trip assessment that Putin still had “one foot” planted in the Cold War. Putin, who hand-picked Medvedev as his successor last year and has stayed on as prime minister, rejected Obama’s criticism and insisted it was U.S. policy that needed to be updated.

Despite the testy exchange, the two sides have settled on the old issue of arms control as the cornerstone for forging a less rancorous relationship between Washington and Moscow.

“I seek to reset relations with Russia because I believe that Americans and Russians have many common interests, interests that our governments recently have not pursued as actively as we could have,” Obama told the Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta ahead of the summit.

He left Washington on Sunday evening and was due to hold talks with Medvedev at the Kremlin on Monday afternoon.

On the eve of Obama’s visit, negotiators were still bargaining over how far the presidents will go in setting down markers for further cuts in nuclear arsenals. Such markers are supposed to form the basis for a treaty to be signed by December when an existing pact known as START-1 expires.

Medvedev said in an interview published on Sunday the United States must compromise on plans to deploy an anti-missile system in Europe that Russia fiercely opposes.

The summit will also yield the Kremlin’s permission to ship U.S. weapons supplies across Russian territory en route to U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, sources on both sides said.

The transit deal will open up a crucial corridor for the United States as it steps up its fight against a resurgent Taliban in line with Obama’s new Afghanistan strategy.

DIVISIONS

Progress on these fronts will be touted as evidence that both sides want to put their rocky relations of recent years on a better path.

It will be harder to bridge the gap on other issues.

Obama acknowledged in the Novaya Gazeta interview “Russian sensitivities” over the proposed anti-missile shield. But he made clear he would not accept any effort by Moscow to link arms control talks to missile defense.

Moscow, which sees proposed missile-defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic as a threat to its security, has insisted in recent weeks that the two issues are intertwined.

Putin hit back, saying Russians “are standing firmly on both feet and always look to the future”.

In an indication of the strained atmosphere, Russia’s Kremlin-controlled main television channels — the chief source of news for most Russians — have played down Obama’s visit.

Sunday evening’s main Channel One news show did not mention Obama in its main headlines and opened with a lengthy report on Medvedev exhorting Russians to save energy. Rival channel Vesti began its show talking about the death of a folk singer.

“This is being played as essentially a low-key visit that shows the American leadership’s respect for the Russian leadership,” Dmitry Trenin, head of the Moscow Carnegie Centre think-tank, said. “This is not some star coming to town.”

The Other Russia and Solidarity opposition movements announced plans for a protest rally in central Moscow on Monday evening to coincide with Obama’s visit.

(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Guy Faulconbridge and Amie Ferris-Rotman)

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Biden to reassure Poles during European trip

Poland US Central Europe

Biden to reassure Poles during European trip

WARSAW, Poland – U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has arrived in Poland on the highest-level visit yet by the Obama administration to the country — a gesture Poles view as Washington’s attempt to repair the damage done by its handling of missile defense plans.

President Barack Obama is deeply admired in Western Europe but his administration is less popular in Poland and other former Soviet satellites because of Washington’s drive to mend ties with Russia — still deeply feared in the region — and plans to reconfigure Bush-era missile defense plans.

Biden’s two-day visit to Poland will be followed by stops in Romania and the Czech Republic. He landed Tuesday night in Warsaw in a steady rain, waving as he left his plane.

The White House has said defense issues will feature in his talks in the three countries, all NATO members with troops in Afghanistan, and that Biden will discuss Obama’s missile defense plans during his talks, as well.

The visit is seen by the Polish public and leaders as “mainly about damage control and trying to make up for mistakes,” said Bartosz Wisniewski, a foreign policy analyst with the Polish Institute of International Affairs.

Last month, Obama scrapped Bush’s plans to put missile defense interceptors in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic, a system intended to shoot down future long-range missiles from Iran.

The administration’s planned replacement would instead be aimed against Iranian short- and intermediate-range missiles; it says that makes more sense in part because Iran doesn’t yet have long-range capabilities.

Obama has promised Poland and the Czech Republic the right to host elements of the new system. In particular, the U.S. has offered Warsaw the chance to host SM-3 missiles — the U.S. Navy’s Standard Missile-3, an anti-ballistic missile that the Pentagon says is the most technically advanced and cost-effective way to counter Iran’s anticipated arsenal.

Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said he expected Biden to flesh out this offer during the visit, but that no history-making decisions would be made during Biden’s short visit.

“We expect details of the offer and will react in light of these, but please do not expect any dramatic or momentous events,” Sikorski told reporters as he flew Tuesday to Poland from Israel, according to the news agency PAP. “Poland is to be part of this system in the third phase — that is, around 2018 — so there is still a lot of time to work out the details.”

But even hosting SM-3s would mark a scaled-down role for Poland in the U.S. missile defense system, a fact lamented by Polish President Lech Kaczynski and a host of political observers.

“Today we know one thing — Poland’s role in the new plan will not be as big as the role it was to have in the Bush plan,” Lukasz Kulesa, an analyst at the Warsaw-based Polish Institute of International Affairs, wrote Tuesday in the Gazeta Wyborcza daily.

He said the White House’s new plan “does not give us an exclusive position,” and that any SM-3 missiles that might be placed in Poland “will only be of secondary significance.”

Poles were also dismayed that Obama announced his plans for a reconfigured missile defense system on Sept. 17, the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland at the start of World War II — timing that signaled to them a lack of sensitivity.

Kulesa said that, with Biden’s visit, “The Americans are clearly trying to cover over the disastrous impression made by the manner in which the Americans presented their change to missile defense on Sept. 17th.”

Biden’s national security adviser, Tony Blinken, said Monday that Obama’s shift on missile defense, which was welcomed by Russia, does not threaten Poland or its neighbors.

“We’ve been very clear from day one that we are seeking to improve relations with Russia, but not at the expense of any of our partners,” Blinken said.

Biden’s stops in Bucharest and Prague come with both countries in political limbo.

The Czech Republic has a weak caretaker government that lacks the power to move forward on any missile defense deals.

In Romania, where a weak caretaker government also leads the country, three candidates campaigning for the November presidential election all hope to be given a boost by Biden’s visit.

They “want to be taken notice of, to say ‘look, we have America behind us,'” said Bogdan Chirieac, a Romanian political analyst.

But that state of limbo probably means Washington will hold off until after the election to initiate any significant new military or economic business with Bucharest, Chirieac argued.

_____

Associated Press writers Alison Mutler in Bucharest and Karel Janicek in Prague contributed to this report.]

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Obama faces a pivotal autumn

barack-obama-for-president

Obama faces a pivotal autumn

WASHINGTON  – Americans are showing signs of impatience with their new president as Barack Obama enters a pivotal period facing a raft of critical decisions ranging from healthcare to Afghanistan.

A wide variety of public opinion polls paint a difficult picture for Obama, with Americans expressing doubts about his handling of the U.S. economy, healthcare and Afghanistan. His job approval rating has drifted down to around 50 percent. It was at 68 percent when he took office in January.

White House officials are aware of the challenges and are working to try to regain the initiative on his top domestic priority, a healthcare overhaul by year’s end, after a tumultuous summer. Obama will give a speech to a joint session of Congress on Sept. 9 and may use the rare forum to argue for his retooled strategy.

“The president is considering all of his options on how to advance the debate and get reform passed. This includes possibly laying out a more specific vision. No decisions have been made though,” said a senior official.

Complicating the picture for Obama, there has been no broad feeling of economic rebirth despite gains in the stock market, a slowing in job losses and other signs of improvement.

He also faces foreign-policy challenges. Amid mounting American casualties, he is reviewing a U.S. military report on Afghanistan and is facing conflicting pressures on how to confront the deteriorating situation there, with some liberals arguing for fewer troops and some at the Pentagon wanting to send more.

He is trying to coax Middle East peace moves back to life, engage Iran in diplomatic negotiations over its nuclear program with an end-of-September deadline approaching, and get North Korea back to nuclear talks.

His administration is also conducting policy reviews on a cluster of challenges — Burma, Sudan and missile defense.

“It is a pivotal phase of his presidency on how he not only resolves healthcare but also deals with North Korea, Afghanistan and energy,” said Democratic strategist Doug Schoen, who worked in the Clinton White House.

The Democratic president also is trying to nurse the U.S. economy out of a lingering recession that did not start on his watch but has lasted long enough to create political problems for him.

“Part of the problem here is the American public’s appetite for immediate resolution of everything,” said Democratic strategist Bud Jackson. “The biggest thing that President Obama could hope for is more patience from people.”

Opposition Republicans, hoping to gain ground on Democratic majorities in the U.S. Congress in 2010 congressional elections, charge a $787 billion economic stimulus plan has done nothing to cure the country’s 9.4 percent unemployment rate.

His financial regulatory reform plans are working their way through Congress and he sits down with world leaders at both the U.N. General Assembly in New York and at a Group of 20 summit in Pittsburgh this month to try to work out ways to boost the global economy.

Elections in November to determine governors of Virginia and New Jersey are looming as an early referendum on the president. The races are far from over but Republican candidates are in the lead.

“Obama is on the ballot, front and center, like it or not,” said Republican strategist Scott Reed.

The first issue to confront Obama on his return next week from a two-week working vacation is healthcare, after raucous town hall meetings conducted by lawmakers showed that Americans are far from agreement on how deeply to revamp the system and confused as to what the overhaul would mean for them.

Many experts believe he will be forced to accept an agreement that is less than what he desired, well under the $1 trillion price tag and not as sweeping, without a government-run insurance option to compete with private insurers.

Some liberals say he should use the Democrats’ power to ram through his plan even if by a slim majority, while some Republicans urge him to start afresh and conduct a more bipartisan approach.

“The American people believe we’re headed in the wrong direction on healthcare and believe we should come back to Washington next week and start over,” said Tennessee Republican Senator Lamar Alexander.

Pollster John Zogby said to some extent Obama is a victim of the high expectations that accompanied his ascension to power last January.

“This was bound to happen. The expectations were very high, at least relative to the previous administration where expectations had sort of bottomed out. Here’s a new president, young and dynamic, lots of promise and promises, and this is what happens,” he said.

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